Amy Brenner Mitz: ‘School choice’ is not a choice

For the Monitor
Monday, May 07, 2018

The school choice bill was voted down by a slim margin, but it has not been laid to rest. If passed, the bill will allow parents to use tax dollars allocated to public schools to send their children to alternative schools, including private schools and home school education.

There is an important place in our country for alternative schools. Private schools. Charter schools. Home schools. However, reasonably sized community public schools with high standards and individualized learning for every student should be the attainable goal of every district in this country. Public education at its best is the American way. When there is a pooling of diverse resources, there are more opportunities.

This goal is not attainable if public education is no longer primary but becomes just another “choice.” Passing this bill will reflect that we have given up on this vital goal.

Supporters of the bill claim public schools will lose very little money. They argue the children “do not disappear” from the district. They are just being educated in an alternative venue with the same dollars. Other education advocacy groups claim there could be losses of up to $32 million. It doesn’t take an education budget specialist to understand it costs more to start and maintain new schools than it does to educate the same number of children in their own community public schools. It doesn’t take an administrator to understand that losing students from public schools ensures loss of funds, loss of teachers and the list goes on.

“School choice” will force public schools to continue on their path of cutting budget corners. So called “stabilization grants” have now been introduced to solve this problem. But there are widely divergent estimates on if these would really help. And think about it: The underlying philosophy behind the word stabilization is about maintaining, not growing. Public education has been in a languishing state for years because it has become all about maintaining instead of growing and thriving.

Passing this bill will break down communities instead of building them up. It will continue the path we are already on of carving our communities into segregated cocoons. It will undercut funding, high standards and advocacy resources from the public school system. Under the guise of “choice,” this bill will help ensure that our families become consumers of education, not advocates.

Have we become so cynical that fighting for our own little piece of the educational pie will be the new normal, rather than working together to assess the needs of each child and advocate for a thoughtful budget that reflects these needs?

My twin sons are 23 years old and have significant disabilities. They require a great deal of staff support to be successful. They went through the public school system in our small town. It wasn’t easy to advocate as a parent, and it was challenging for the school to provide the appropriate services. Yet, our children went to school in their own community. Their civil rights to learn alongside other children in their community were protected in that school.

All children benefited from being educated together. Today our sons have paid work and volunteer in their own community. They contribute to the community. Ensuring their rights to both benefit and contribute is an ongoing and challenging process. Sadly, most special needs students still do not have their education needs met well anywhere. If our public education system is weakened further instead of strengthened, weaker will be the resources to provide what’s needed for children of every ability to become valuable members of society.

Healthy communities depend on quality public education that supports every student. Public education may not be for everyone. But it should be for most, and it should be excellent.

Whole communities have to get behind it or risk further fragmentation. When citizens are willing to work together toward excellence for all, our communities thrive. If this “school choice” bill passes, there will be less opportunity for all.

(Amy Brenner Mitz lives in Sugar Hill.)